The 1837 Winnebago Treaty

During the first part of the nineteenth century, the American Indian policy was to remove Indians from east of the Mississippi River and to “give” them reservations in Indian Territory. Under the U.S. Constitution, Indian tribes were considered to be domestic dependent nations which meant that the federal government had to negotiate treaties with them.

A treaty is simply an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Following the Constitution, the United States recognized Indian nations as sovereign entities and thus negotiated treaties with them. From the viewpoint of American law, there are three basic steps involved in the treaty process: (1) the treaty is negotiated, (2) it is then ratified by the Senate, and (3) it is proclaimed (signed) by the President. At this time, the treaty is considered to be in force and is a law which is superior to that of local or state laws.

In negotiating treaties with Indian nations, the Americans viewed the treaties, and the Indians themselves, as being temporary. “Knowing” that Indians were destined to vanish, the Americans generally viewed treaties as a way of increasing the pace of assimilation and the destruction of Indian cultures.

Treaties were negotiated for many different reasons. In addition to establishing peace, and thus preventing war, the United States negotiated treaties to obtain land. The United States frequently gave voice to the idea that no Indian land was to be taken without the consent of the Indians. At the same time, the United States had a policy of recognizing Indian leaders who were favorable to land cession and who were willing to accept bribes.

Winnebago Background:

 In 1634, the French explorer Jean Nicolet encountered the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) living along the Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan in what is now Wisconsin. According to Winnebago oral tradition, this was their original home. Like the other Indian nations in the western Great Lakes region, the Winnebago at this time were a farming people who lived in villages. Like many other Indian nations, they did not live in tipis, but in rectangular pole-framed houses covered with bark. For subsistence, they grew corn (maize), beans, and squash. They raised tobacco for ceremonial use.

The Winnebago’s initial contacts with Europeans were with fur traders and missionaries. Then, in the nineteenth century, came the Americans. The first treaty with the Winnebago occurred in 1816 when a delegation of 11 Winnebago chiefs, including Naw-Kaw and Spoon Decora travelled to St. Louis, Missouri to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States.

The Treaty of 1837:

The road to the Winnebago Treaty of 1837 began in 1830 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Here the United States negotiators met in treaty council with several tribes: Sioux (Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Medawakonton), Iowa, Menominee, Winnebago, Omaha, Otoe-Missouria, Sauk, and Fox. Tribal leaders signed a treaty which gave the United States most of what is now Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota. During the council, the Americans told the Indians that it is time to bury the war tomahawk deep in the earth or face the U.S. army. The threat of war and genocide was not even thinly veiled. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) assured the chiefs:  “we didn’t purchase those lands with a view to settle the white people on them.”  This was, in reality, the beginning of non-Indian settlement in the region.

Two years later, in 1832, the United States met with the Winnebago and as a result the Winnebago agreed to give up their lands east of the Mississippi and to move to Neutral Ground in Iowa. They were to receive $10,000 per year for 27 years for their lands.

As with other removals in which Indian nations were verbally told that their new lands would be theirs forever, American greed tended to be impatient. In 1837, the United States imposed a new treaty on the Winnebago nation. This new treaty confirmed the Winnebago land cessions in Wisconsin and reduced the size of the Neutral Ground. The Winnebago treaty delegation had gone to Washington, D.C. to meet with the President to plead for their lands. Instead, they were told that they could not return home until they had signed the new treaty which gave their lands away. This was an effective negotiating practice often used by the United States.

Under Winnebago protocol, treaty signers in matters pertaining to land must include a significant representation of leaders of the Bear clan, which was lacking in the Washington delegation. Anthropologist Nancy Lurie, writing in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:  “To make sure no land would be sold, the tribe sent 20 men who had no authority to sign a treaty of cession.”

Two respected civil chiefs—Kar-i-mo-nee and Big Boat Decora—led the delegation of mostly younger men.

In Washington, the Winnebago were promised that they would have 8 years to move and the members of the treaty delegation hoped that by then they would be able to negotiate a new treaty. However, the actual treaty required that they move in 8 months. The interpreter had been directed to deceive the delegation into thinking that they had 8 years. The Governor of Wisconsin had informed Washington that if the federal government did not remove the Winnebago, he would raise a state militia to forcibly remove them.

The treaty created a permanent division in the Winnebago. One group under the leadership of Kar-i-mo-nee and Big Boat Decora abided by the treaty and the other group under the leadership of Yellow Thunder and Dandy hid out in central Wisconsin.

The Winnebago Uprising

( – promoted by navajo)


photo credit: Aaron Huey

During the 1820s, American miners began to invade the Galena area near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. When the Ho-Chunk began mining lead and selling it to American traders, the government became concerned that the Indians might feel that their land had economic value and might resist giving it to the United States. Thus, the Indian agents were instructed to prevent the Indians from mining lead and selling it. The government’s position was that the Indians must give up this land, along with the lead that it contained, so that it could be properly and profitably developed by the Americans invaders. Tensions increased between the Indians and the Americans.  

In 1826 several Ho-Chunk warriors attacked and killed members of a French Canadian family at their sugar camp near Prairie du Chien. The following year, American officials arrested two Ho-Chunk warriors and charged them with the murders. Soon there was a false rumor-possibly started by the Sioux in Minnesota-that the Americans had turned the two prisoners over to the Chippewa for execution. In response to the rumor, the Ho-Chunk tribal council designated Red Bird, Wekau, and Chickhonsic to carry out a revenge raid, a traditional response to the killing of a Winnebago. Red Bird and his two warriors killed a farmer and his hired hand. American settlers in the area responded by asking the government for more troops to protect them.

The actual 1827 Winnebago Uprising really only involved one incident. Two Mississippi keelboats stopped at the Ho-Chunk village above Prairie du Chien after making a delivery to Fort Snelling. One of the boatmen then kidnapped and raped several Ho-Chunk women. In response, Red Bird, as a war chief, organized a war party to rescue the women. Several nights later they caught up with the boats at a narrow stretch of the river near the mouth of the Bad Axe River. The warriors attacked from both shores, from an island, and by canoe. While the Ho-Chunk were unable to capture the boats, the women who were being held captive managed to escape. In the end, four Americans and twelve Ho-Chunk were killed in the battle.

The American settlers were alarmed by the incident and both federal troops and Illinois volunteers were mobilized to put down the “uprising.” They were joined by many miners who simply wanted the Ho-Chunk out of the region so that they could have full access to the lead deposits.

The Ho-Chunk were not unified and a number of prominent Ho-Chunk chiefs sided with the Americans. In the end, and without further battles, Red Bird agreed to give himself up to the military in order to save his people. At the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, he sang his death song and then surrendered. Carrying a white flag, and accompanied by his relatives, Red Bird entered the American camp. He wore a white buckskin, elaborately fringed, and a two-inch-wide collar of blue which wampum encircled with wildcat claws. Half his face was painted red, the other half green and white, While his surrender was being arranged by the leaders, he mixed tobacco and smoked quietly.

The Americans also arrested six other warriors and charged them with the murders of the farmers and the boatmen.

All of the Ho-Chunk were held in prison. The Ho-Chunk chief Nawkaw went to Washington, D.C. and met with President John Quincy Adams to lobby for Red Bird’s release. While President Adams acquitted Red Bird, the Ho-Chunk war leader died in prison before word of his release reached prison officials. Charges against the four warriors charged in the attack on the keelboats were dropped. Wekau and Chickhonsic were convicted of the murder of the farmer and his hired hand, but were later pardoned.

Red Bird was born near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin about 1788 and his adult name-Red Bird-came from the red birds that he wore as epaulettes on his shoulders.